Archived 2012-2013 topics: Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis): downlist to Near Threatened?

This discussion was first published on Dec 1 2010 as part of the 2010-2011 Red List update, but remains open for comment to enable reassessment in 2013. Link to BirdLife species factsheet for Red-cockaded Woodpecker Red-cockaded Woodpecker Picoides borealis is presently listed as Vulnerable under criteria C1; C2a(i), because its population was estimated to number fewer than 10,000 mature individuals and was previously estimated to be declining at a rate of 20-29% over 16 years (1994-2010: estimate of three generations). In the 1990s, this species’s population was estimated to number 10,000-11,000 individuals (Jackson 1994, Guynn 1997, J. A. Jackson in litt. 1999), suggesting that the number of mature individuals was below 10,000. It has undergone a large and statistically significant decrease over the last 40 years in North America (70.2% decline over 40 years, equating to a 26.1% decline per decade; data from the Breeding Bird Survey and the Christmas Bird Count: Butcher and Niven 2007), and James (1995) calculated a 23% decline in the number of known sites between the early 1980s and 1990. The species’s decline has been driven largely by habitat loss and fragmentation (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2008). It has recently been confirmed, however, that the species’s population has exceeded 10,000 mature individuals since at least 2000, and is provisionally estimated to have numbered 14,500 mature individuals in 2008 (W. McDearman in litt. 2010). In addition, it is now thought that the population is stable and possibly increasing, and has been at least since 2003 (W. McDearman in litt. 2010). The species’s recovery is the result of successful conservation efforts, including habitat management, nest-site provision and translocation of birds (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2008), whilst improved knowledge has been acquired thanks to intensive studies. This improvement in our knowledge of the species’s status suggests that it has not met the thresholds for Vulnerable under the C criterion for at least five years and is consequently eligible for downlisting. As the species’s population size still approaches the threshold for Vulnerable under the C criteria, it is proposed that the species be listed as Near Threatened under criterion C2a(i). Although there is evidence that the population is increasing, deciphering the actual trend is compounded by the ongoing discovery of new colonies, thus the species is currently considered to be stable and possibly increasing. In this case the use of the Near Threatened category also expresses concern over the safety of all sub-populations. Most of the sub-populations are small, and require continued growth until they can resist sudden environmental changes (W. McDearman in litt. 2010). It is also acknowledged that although the overall population is stable or increasing, some sub-populations are still in decline and losing their viability (W. McDearman in litt. 2010). Comments are invited on the proposed downlisting to Near Threatened, and further information on the species would be welcomed. Butcher, G. S. and Niven, D. K. (2007) Combining Data from the Christmas Bird Count and the Breeding Bird Survey to Determine the Continental Status and Trends of North American Birds. Ivyland, Pensylvania: National Audubon Society. Guynn, D. (1997) Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. Birdwatcher’s Dig. 20: 60-65. Jackson, J. A. (1994) Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis). Pp. 1-20 in Poole, A. and Gill, F., eds. The birds of North America, No. 85. Philadelphia, and Washington, DC: The Academy of Natural Sciences, and The American Ornithologists’ Union. James, F. C. (1995) The status of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker in 1990 and the prospect for recovery. Pp. 439-451 in Kulhary, D.L., Hooper, R.G. and Costa, R., eds. Red-cockaded Woodpecker: recovery, ecology and management. Nacodgdoches, Texas: Center for Applied Studies in Forestry Publication, College of Forestry, Stephen F. Austin State University. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (2008) Red-cockaded Woodpecker Fact Sheet. Available from: Accessed: 20/10/2010

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2 Responses to Archived 2012-2013 topics: Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis): downlist to Near Threatened?

  1. I have served as Team Leader for the RCW recovery team (8 years) and continued to serve on that team until it was disbanded a few years ago. I have studied the species populations throughout its range and am currently writing a book on the species, thus am very familiar with the literature, conservation actions, and the politics relative to this species.

    I do not believe the species should be down-listed. Censuses of the species on at least some federal lands have been almost non-existent (e.g., Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge, Mississippi) in recent years. Excessive cutting of old growth has happened in at least some areas within the home range of these birds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has appeased developers and forestry interests by translocating birds from private lands to public lands, thus further fragmenting and isolating populations. Success or failure of such translocations is often not well-documented. Translocation of birds and use of artificial cavities have become the focus of conservation efforts rather than creation and maintenance of the open, old-growth pine forest habitat the birds need.

    It is my professional opinion that our data base on this species for recent years is weak and that the species is in a much more precarious position than suggested.

  2. Jeffrey R. Walters says:

    I have conducted research on this species for 30 years, and served on the Recovery Team that wrote the current Recovery Plan for the species. Although great progress has been made in protecting and recovering this species, I agree with Dr. Jackson that this success remains precarious, and thus I have concerns about the proposed downlisting. First, as Dr. Jackson points out, population increases are dependent on intensive management, and it is not clear that if such management ceased that habitat improvements, although considerable at some locations, are yet sufficient to support continued population increase without the additional intensive management (i.e., artificial cavities, translocation). Second population trends are very uneven, with remarkable increases in some populations and no progress or even continued decline in others. One agency, the Department of Defense, is responsible for most of the increase, and four installations with large populations are responsible for most of the gains by DOD. One of those installations has recently lost a large portion (perhaps 20%) of its population through a single management action. This illustrates the vulnerability of the species to changes in management at key locations. Because of its peculiar biology and dependence on old growth, this species is uniquely susceptible to rapid decline under an inappropriate management regime. Although the population increases that justify downlisting are real, the species’ status could change very quickly should management on its behalf cease.

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